First Past the Post

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | June 2004 | pp. 102–111

Can the Muslim Brotherhood meet the three conditions everyone seems to agree it must accept to become a legitimate political force? Or will a Brotherhood splinter group become the nation’s first Muslim Democratic Party?

Blending Islam with democratic principles and the demands of modernity, the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood is slowly positioning itself as a religious-democratic party. Christian Democrats, long a ruling party in Germany, are an obvious example, but a more pointed one might be Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), formed by Bosnian Muslim President Alija Izetbegović in the dying days of the former Yugoslavia.

But If Izetbegović could return from the grave for a chat with the leaders of today’s  Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen, its doubtful his words of advice would be overly optimistic. As the now-deceased president knew, Islamic movements, even moderate ones, have often inspired unease and sparked fears of extremism or repressiveness, conjuring up images of the imposition of the veil, the prohibition of alcohol and the closure of bars, nightclubs, gambling casinos and other Western-style establishments.

 

While Izetbegović worked overtime to prove his party believed in the separation between religion and the state and held out olive branches to Bosnia’s Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs—attracting a reasonable percentage of each—the Brotherhood lags behind in doing the same. Largely, the group’s leaders say, it’s because they’re forced to work outside the law.

 

Still, the Muslim Brothers have scrambled in the last 12 months to stay relevant in a quickly shifting political landscape both in Egypt and the region, most recently by unveiling a multi-point democratic reform proposal after Egypt’s governing National Democratic Party (NDP) put forth a document of its own and President Hosni Mubarak declared Arab governments should come up with a common platform for reform before one was forced on them by the United States.

 

While the Brotherhood is likely years away from becoming a political party, the group claims it could transform itself literally overnight. Analysts and a senior NDP reformer and parliamentarian aren’t so certain, though they say the Brotherhood should have a seat at the reform table provided it proves it can meet a laundry list of conditions.

 

Is the Arab world ready for a party that sees no distinction between the Mosque and the State? Al-Ikhwan is certain it is, but in its failure to secure state recognition and put forth a detailed policy platform with broad appeal, it has already spawned a small splinter group called Al-Wasat (The Middle) itching to beat its big brother to the punch.

 

The race to form the region’s first “Muslim Democratic Party” is on.

 

The Origins of a Movement

In talking about most political groups, it’s enough to start in the present—or at least in the very recent past, looking at its electoral record, its policy platform, its recent leaders. But while most political parties in Egypt have had the time (whether they’ve used it or not) to close the chapter on the past, mull it over and figure out its role in their lives today, the Muslim Brotherhood is still a captive of its history.

 

So we’ll start where we must start: at the beginning.

 

Hassan Al-Banna was just 22-years-old, a young and electrifying Arabic schoolteacher in Ismailia, when he formed the Muslim Brotherhood as a youth group in March 1928. His agenda was anti-colonial and strongly rooted in his faith—end the British occupation and set up a state founded on the principles of Shariah.

 

By the start of the Second World War, the Brotherhood had emerged as one of the most visible players on the local scene, galvanizing a broad membership of students, civil servants, peasants and professionals. Al-Banna even considered women an essential part of his Islamic reformation. 

 

The movement quickly spread throughout North Africa and Trans-Jordan, gaining popular support with its active involvement in the 1948 war in Palestine, where it opposed the creation of a Jewish state. In 1948, the Brotherhood’s paramilitary wing, dubbed the “Secret Apparatus,” was fingered in the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmud Nuqrashi, who had banned the movement. 

 

Publicly, Al-Banna condemned the act; privately, he conceded that he had lost control over the Secret Apparatus. On February 12, 1949, the Brotherhood’s founder was gunned down at close range by government operatives as he entered a taxi in downtown Cairo. He died at the age of 42, leaving behind a mass movement he hoped would unleash the power of organized Islam to reform society. 

 

A few months after the military junta outlawed the Brotherhood again in 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser was giving a speech in Alexandria when he found himself the target of a bungled assassination attempt by a Brotherhood member. The crackdown that followed dealt another devastating blow to the Brotherhood, driving it underground for nearly 20 years.

 

Political Islam experienced a revival in the 1970s as President Anwar Sadat, soon after coming to power, subtly encouraged Islamists to organize, believing he could use them as a weight against Nasserists and Socialists. While Sadat overtly maintained Nasser’s ban on the Brotherhood, he turned a blind eye as it opened an office in Cairo and allowed it for a time to publish a monthly magazine.

 

Despite the crackdown that followed Sadat’s assassination by Lt. Khaled Islamboli in the name of the Islamist group Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, much of the first decade of President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure offered an atmosphere of relative tolerance for the moderate Muslim Brotherhood—members of the group stood for election and formed the largest opposition bloc in the People’s Assembly. But with the escalation of violence linked to Islamist groups in the late 1980s and 1990s, the government took a no-holds-barred approach when it came to arresting Brotherhood organizers. 

 

The assassinations by Islamists of government officials and security officers and the slaying of foreign tourists made the stakes too high.

 

Although the state and the Brotherhood began working together not long after the outbreak of the second Intifada to channel mass protest (against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, for example) into non-violent arenas, clampdowns on younger members of the Brotherhood continue. 

 

At press time, security officers had arrested some 54 members of Al-Ikhwan, most of them from the lower and middle ranks, in a series of raids in Cairo, Alexandria, Daqahlia and Monoufia. The office of Prosecutor General Maher Abdel Wahed confirmed most of the men had been detained on charges of plotting against the state. Unconfirmed reports suggested investigators had seized in the raids some LE 3 million in cash the Brotherhood had stockpiled to support its candidates in the next parliamentary elections, presently scheduled for January 2005.

 

Among the Muslim Brothers making the most noise about the arrests was Essam El-Erian, a senior leader of the Brotherhood and assistant secretary-general of the Physicians’ Syndicate.

 

In his brightly lit, first-floor office in the medical syndicate, El-Erian has his television set tuned to Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya and his desktop computer plugged into the internet. Charismatic, easy-going and always eager to engage in friendly debate, El-Erian has a talent for connecting with people from different political persuasions, sharing some of the traits that made Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna so influential in his time.

“Maybe they do not want to arrest the Supreme Guide, but everyone else is a target,” El-Erian said before the arrests of the 54. “They have sent this message to the Brothers, and in fact implemented it.”

The Reformer

Essam El-Erian is at the forefront of the next generation of Brotherhood leaders, a virtual youngster at age 50 compared with the 70- and 80-year-olds in the group’s top-tier of leadership. He’s firmly planted at the core of the men who could yet lead the Brotherhood into the ranks of Egypt’s political parties.

 

With a slightly receding hairline and a graying, close-cropped beard, he fingers prayer beads as he reclines in a comfortable chair, candidly talking about his career and politics in his spacious third-floor walkup off a narrow street in the Haram district of Al-Amraniya Al-Gharbiya.

 

El-Erian is coy about the titles he holds within the Brotherhood, preferring to say instead that he is simply one of the organization’s leaders and admitting that he has been involved in all aspects of a movement that has become a popular and organized opposition force. It is about Essam El-Erian and his Brothers that the average person speaks when he or she declares simply, “Islam is the solution.”

 

A clinical pathologist by training and one of the most visible Brothers, El-Erian is a familiar face on Arab satellite channels and foreign broadcasts, although he is banned from appearing on state-run television and speaking at public university forums. And under the emergency law, the Interior Ministry limits his travels abroad, a restriction he shares with most of the Brotherhood’s leadership. 

 

If Al-Ikhwan is to play a more significant role in public life, El-Erian declares, the government must lift its ban on the group. “Internal stability as a legal organization would allow the Brotherhood to think in different ways, to open its doors more,” he says. “How can one think when he feels that he is not safe?” 

 

For El-Erian, politics is an integral part of Islam, a conviction that dates to his days as an Islamist student activist in the 1970s. Since then, he has been a member of parliament in the 1980s and a political prisoner in the 1990s. 

 

Early on, he developed a political consciousness rooted in faith. His passion for political involvement and organizing blossomed in high school and college. The youngest of four sons, El-Erian was born on April 28, 1954, in the Giza village of Nahya to a schoolteacher father who died when El-Erian was six. He attended secondary and high school at the Urman Model School in Dokki and enrolled in Cairo University’s medical school in 1972, where he wrote for college newspapers and organized student union elections. 

 

From campus activism he joined the Brotherhood, and two years after graduating in 1977, he wed Fatma Fadl Sayed, with whom he now has four children and his first grandchild. Over the next few years, El-Erian worked at a government hospital and obtained a master’s degree in clinical pathology. 

 

His political involvement grew in lockstep with his professional career, making him a visible, if young, player in the Islamist scene. On September 3, 1981, President Anwar Sadat launched a crackdown on opposition figures with the arrest and detention of some 1,536 political opponents, among them prominent journalists, politicians, religious leaders and student activists. El-Erian’s visibility cost him when he was scooped up in the first wave of arrests. 

 

Sadat was assassinated weeks later by members of Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya during a military parade to mark the October 1973 War. 

 

El-Erian figures the reason behind the mass arrests was Sadat’s bid to quell dissent until Israel returned occupied Sinai to Egypt in April 1982. Having a vocal opposition wallow in prison was one way to keep it quiet. Although never charged or tried for a crime, El-Erian was detained for a year during which he says he was tortured and interrogated about Sadat’s assassination and his involvement with the Brotherhood. 

 

While El-Erian was behind bars, his wife gave birth to their second child, a son who died of meningitis at three weeks of age. Still, El-Erian says, prison didn’t break his spirit or shake his faith. 

 

El-Erian’s dabbling in electoral politics and the Brotherhood’s grassroots activities took over his life after his release from detention. With a reputation for being enterprising and efficient, the Brotherhood began campaigning in professional syndicate elections. Although he did not enter those elections in 1984 (he was in the “electoral kitchen,” he says with a smile), El-Erian ran and won in the medical syndicate elections of 1986. 

In any of the free elections in the syndicates, the ruling party does not win, says El-Erian. He then ran for a seat in parliament, winning election in 1987 as a member of the People’s Assembly from Giza. 

 

Politics Unusual

In the 1987 elections, the Brotherhood formed an alliance with the Socialist Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with Muslim Brothers going on to win 37 seats despite, El-Erian claims, widespread stuffing of the ballot box by operatives close to the ruling party. 

Those results made Al-Ikhwan the largest opposition bloc.

 

At 33, El-Erian was the youngest member of the new legislature. When attending his first session, he recalled, a security guard stopped him at the gate of Parliament, wanting to know where he was going. When El-Erian took out his identification card, the guard exclaimed it was the first time he had seen a parliamentarian so young. 

 

“I wasn’t the only one,” El-Erian says. “The four youngest MPs were from the Brotherhood.” To better understand the legal minutia as a newly elected public official, he enrolled in Cairo University’s faculty of law. 

 

Looking back on his years in parliament, El-Erian admits the opposition’s influence was limited. “The government has an automatic majority. They attack the representatives who criticize the government and prevent them from speaking,” he claims, adding that too much power is firmly concentrated in the hands of the executive branch. “The institution itself is not set up for change. The constitution gives the president all the powers and forbids his questioning or assessment before parliament.”

 

Parliament was dissolved in 1990 after the court ruled unconstitutional the law under which the 1987 election was held. In an act of protest, opposition groups, including the Brotherhood, boycotted the 1990 elections, demanding government reforms and an end to campaign restrictions.

 

“That was the mistake,” El-Erian now acknowledges. “It took us away from the political arena. We had agreed with the opposition that we would put pressure on the system to implement economic, political and constitutional reforms. The system did not budge, and as opposition parties we lost out.”

 

El-Erian believes the Brotherhood’s following has grown since the balloting that saw him elected in 1987. “In non-free elections, the Brothers and two other parties received 18 percent of the votes in 1987,” he claims. “I think that percentage has increased over time, perhaps 25 to 30 percent. The ruling party received in the last semi-free elections 38 percent. If the Brothers receive 30 percent of the vote, I would consider this a victory.”

 

Admitting the mistake, El-Erian soon began mobilizing for the 1995 parliamentary elections, in which he planned to run as an independent, but his timely arrest on January 21, 1995, kept him out of the race. Indicted and tried as civilians before a military court, El-Erian and 53 other detained Brothers were charged with forming an illegal group with the aim of overthrowing the government and undermining the constitution. 

 

On November 23, the military tribunal convicted El-Erian and the others on all the charges against them, handing him a sentence of five years in prison with hard labor just six days before the elections. All 150 Muslim Brothers in the race—each running as an independent—were defeated in polls critics declared were notoriously violent and marred by allegations of widespread electoral fraud.

 

A detainee at least had the hope he might be released any day, but being a convict was an entirely different experience. Serving time at Tora Prison, he concentrated on his studies, working toward undergraduate degrees in history from Cairo University and Quran and Shariah from Al-Azhar. 

 

“It was painful, of course,” he says of the separation from his family, but he is not one to dwell on the matter.

 

By law, El-Erian’s conviction disqualifies him from running again for a seat in the People’s Assembly. 

 

Conducted under court-ordered judicial supervision, the last parliamentary elections held in fall 2000 were arguably the most democratic in the country’s political history. Yet judicial supervision inside the polling stations did not prevent subterfuge outside, where human rights and democracy activists alleged police prevented citizens from voting in areas where opposition candidates, mainly Muslim Brothers, had drummed up significant support. 

 

Now with 16 seats in the 445-seat People’s Assembly, the Brotherhood once again remains the largest (if unofficial) opposition bloc. The question is whether Al-Ikhwan has what it takes to move to the next level as a recognized political party.

 

Opening the Door to Change

Hala Mustafa is a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and strategic studies and editor-in-chief of the quarterly Democracy Review, a journal to which El-Erian has contributed several articles on Islamic democracy. She contends that Islamist movements are gaining ground in Muslim and Arab societies because they represent the trend that dominates regional politics. 

 

Recent developments in the Middle East continue to shape public perceptions of Islam and its role in the region’s political future, where the occupation of Iraq, repressive governments, cultural conservatism, poverty and ailing economies all play their role in encouraging populist movements like the Brothers. 

 

Yet Mustafa argues that democratizing the region requires liberalizing culture and societies. 

 

“It’s very difficult to say that democracy in the Middle East will be realized by emphasizing one ultimate dimension, like the electoral dimension, for example, because this is inadequate. We have to emphasize the societal and cultural factors.

 

“If we call for free and fair elections, for example, we can have the populist forces or Islamists in power because the social, cultural and political context in the Middle East [may] never provide anything more than that,” she says. “The dilemma is to convince the Islamists that they could be integrated in this political process, but under one condition: They have to admit and to announce the same rights and the same [conditions on their political power as] other political [parties].”

 

Still, Mustafa admits, the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East remains ambiguous. 

 

“It’s very hard to say that there is a full conformity or full compatibility between Islam and democracy, because there is no one major interpretation of Islam in Arab and Muslim societies,” she notes. Nor, one could say, is there one set definition of “democracy.”

 

Muddying the waters: Islam has, to varying degrees, been used as a source of political legitimacy for governments in the region, while liberalism and secularism have been marginalized. Sadat, for example, amended the constitution to say that Shariah is “the principal source of legislation” and empowered Al-Gama’a  in the first place to balance the power of the Socialists and Nasserists. 

 

There are those who believe the state should be built on liberal democratic principles—such as human rights and civil liberties—and not on the Holy Text or Islamic law. “We need to revive this tradition in order to sustain the political process toward democracy and toward political openness,” says Mustafa.

 

The recent rise of unabashedly liberal newspapers such as the daily Al-Masri Al-Youm and the weekly Nahdet Misr suggest many in the intellectual and moneyed elites share that view. But newspapers do not a party make, and none of the nearly defunct parties claiming to espouse liberal ideologies have advanced platforms as credible as the skeletal one put forward by the Brotherhood.

 

The Road to Democratization 

Most players advocate an incremental approach to democracy, one that may well open the door to Al-Ikhwan. 

 

“We can’t reach ‘full democracy’ in a day and night,” argues Mostafa El-Feki, the powerful NDP chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Peoples Assembly, relaxing in a large hall in one of the parliament buildings. 

 

“The process is a gradual one,” he says, citing several examples of progress: “In the last elections, the Egyptian parliament was supervised by the Egyptian legal system, which is a step forward. If you see the [growing diversity of] Egyptian media, you will feel the size of progress we have achieved. That’s why we feel that we have crossed the line—we are now on our way to a more democratic state.”

 

El-Feki maintains that democratization will take time since Egyptians are still not ready for “Western-style” democracy, which requires time for broad educational and cultural changes to take place. That process, he says, will take years, suggesting the ultimate form could well be a unique Egyptian or Arab form of democracy, not a wholesale adoption of Western values.

 

And as Western academics (if not politicians) readily admit, there is no consensus on a single definition of “democracy” even among the North American and Western European nations that claim to be one. 

 

“I use the word ‘democratization.’ I like this word better than ‘democracy,’ because democratization is a process,” El-Feki says. “It depends on education, it depends on culture, it depends on the social values of the society. It needs new generations who are educated according to the democratic values. Maybe it will take an entire decade, but you will have a stable democratic state. This is what we need.”

 

El-Feki has laid out three conditions for the inclusion of Islamists in the political process: A commitment to the peaceful, democratic transfer of power through elections, recognition of the social power of the state, and acceptance of the ground rules of democracy.

 

If an Islamist group accepts those principles, should it be allowed to fully participate in the democratic process?

 

“You can’t tell them ‘No,’” El-Feki says. “They will tell you, ‘I respect the constitution, I respect other powers, I respect minorities, I respect the [peaceful, democratic transfer] of power.’ If he accepts that and he believes that the nation is the source of power, not certain teachings of religion, then yes—you can’t say, ‘No.’” 

 

True, the Arab world does not have a tradition of public opinion polls or free and transparent democracy. And arguments as to their necessity may be intended to prevent a future in which Egypt becomes an Islamic state ruled by Shariah, with liberals fearing the danger of democracy falling into the hands of those who do not believe in it, creating a type of “tyranny of the majority,” in the words of nineteenth century French historian and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.

 

Magdy Hussein, general secretary of the Islamist-oriented Labor Party, maintains that the issue is not whether Egyptians are ready for democracy, but whether today’s leaders are willing to surrender their grip on power. “The mainstream in the political street is the Islamic movement,” he maintains. “There is no other opposition because the secular parties are very weak.”

 

Political freedoms are narrowing, declares Hussein, whose party was frozen by the government and its paper, Al-Shaab, closed. Notable for campaigns it has waged against various government officials—some of them legitimate, others bordering on libel and innuendo—the party’s mouthpiece continues to be published online. 

 

“A quarter of a century after the civil party system [was inaugurated], we are going backwards, not forward,” declares Hussein. “We are not moving to democracy gradually, we are moving to a completely totalitarian regime, gradually.”

 

An Uphill Fight

Political activists like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and a human rights and democracy advocate, believe inclusion is the spirit of democracy. 

 

“I think everybody who’s interested in the democratization of Egypt and the Arab world ought to be made part of the process, even the Islamists—so long as they are willing to respect the rules of the democratic game: one man one vote; respect for human rights; respect for minorities, for women,” he says.

 

“The bulk of the Islamists in the Arab world today, mainly the Muslim Brothers, the oldest of the Islamic movements, has come a long way,” Ibrahim claims. “For one thing, they have not used violence for the last 33 years. Second, they have declared their commitment to democracy. Whether they’re sincere or not, time will tell. But I’m taking them at their own word,” he adds. 

 

“The Muslim Brothers are moderating. They are beginning to evolve like a Muslim Democratic Party, similar to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe. And they should be encouraged, they should be included, and they should become a force in changing instead of a force against change.”

 

Either way, Ibrahim sees democracy as an imperative. “It’s still an uphill fight. And we are under no illusion that it’s going to be short or sweet,” he says. “The challenge to regimes, like that in Egypt, is that if they don’t change, they may be swept away by forces stronger than they are.”

 

A Muslim Democratic Party

But is the Brotherhood ready to become a “Muslim Democratic Party,” along the same lines as Bosnia’s Party of Democratic Action?

 

“The Brotherhood is more democratic than the other parties,” El-Erian asserts, “but it is not completely democratic, not like the Labour Party in Britain. We haven’t reached that stage. But we are better than the parties I have seen in Egypt.”

 

The Brotherhood can transform itself into a political party within 24 hours, he adds. The question is, would that party be sectarian? Would it embrace the same separation between state and religion as Izetbegović’s SDA did in its constitution?

 

“If we formed a political party, it would be open to Muslims and Christians. But as a religious association, it may only have Christian consultants. Al-Banna had two Christian consultants.” Having Christian consultants and possibly members is one thing, but the question remains: What impetus would they have to cast their ballots for it at the polls? Unlike in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where the SDA was forced to court Serb Orthodox and Croatian Catholic voters because of the three-way population split, the tiny size of Egypt’s Christian community makes it difficult to see what would compel the Brotherhood to do the same.

 

But Al-Ikhwan’s clean hands might be a draw, El-Erian says, claiming people see the ruling NDP as little more than a well-oiled patronage machine. “The party centers on the benefits the leadership can offer. Blocs within the party disagree more than they agree because everyone is looking out only for their own interests. The Brothers are a popular movement. Their ideas are Islamic, they are organized and the pressure on them has made them more unified, making them a powerful competitor. The ruling party cannot compete with them except through the use of [the] security [apparatus] to prevent the Brotherhood [from reaching its potential].”

 

El-Erian dismisses the notion that the Brotherhood would refuse to transfer power it may obtain through the ballot box in the event that it is subsequently voted out of office, claiming the group has a reputation for practicing what it preaches. It has allowed for a smooth transition of power in syndicate elections, he points put. Plus, a healthy political system would include a mechanism of checks and balances to prevent the undermining of the democratic process and the monopolization of power through the use of an army or police force. 

 

There is no reason why democracy and Islam cannot coexist, El-Erian bluntly claims. “Democracy works in caste-stratified India, in Buddhist Japan, in Catholic and Protestant Europe, and in America, which separates religion and state.”

 

A State under Shariah

The catch is that the Brotherhood has no plans to separate the mosque from the state. What, then, would Egypt become under Shariah?

 

“There will be more stability and justice,” El-Erian replies optimistically. “There will be mutual respect between the people and the government. I think there will be greater freedoms. Corruption will end. Egypt will have a greater role in the Islamic and Arabic world. It will be nation with a message.”

 

Civilian leaders, not clerics as in Iran, would hold political power, he continues. Laws would follow the principles of Shariah, and Christians would have the same rights and responsibilities as Muslims. 

 

“It would not be possible for a Christian to rob a Muslim and be punished, yet the Muslim who robs a Christian is immune from punishment,” says El-Erian. “It would not be possible for a Muslim to be hanged for killing a Christian and the Christian to receive a lesser punishment for the same crime. Here we need equality. I think this is justice.

 

The state would have a legal system that is consistent with the Shariah of the majority and which does not contradict the religious rules of the minority in what concerns them—such as in marriage and divorce, says El-Erian, underscoring that it would be difficult for a minority to have veto power in the affairs of an Islamic state. 

 

Of the rights of women, El-Erian says, “The Brotherhood succeeded in having a women run for office and win in a male dominated society and with male votes, and the government refused.” He was referring to Muslim Sister candidate Jehan Al-Halafawy, who ran for the People’s Assembly in the Ramleh district of Alexandria. The Brotherhood candidates won handily, leaving the NDP candidates and other independent challengers in the dust, but the results were soon overturned in a court challenge. 

 

“The Brotherhood even accomplished sending a woman to jail,” El-Erian adds with a smile.

 

Alcohol and state-ordered prohibition is always an issue of vibrant debate. Under Shariah, alcohol could not legally be sold to Muslims, with its sale and consumption limited to foreigners and non-Muslims. Christians, for example, would be allowed to manufacture and trade in alcohol. 

 

But should the state really be involved in personal decisions? 

 

“It’s like someone walking naked in the street. My name is El-Erian [in Arabic: The Naked One], but I am not going to walk naked in the street. I can say, ‘I am going to walk naked. I am free. I am not bothering anyone.’ But there are pragmatic boundaries of right or wrong, and others that are religious.”

 

Of course, another party can run on a platform that would repeal the ban on alcohol—or whatever other of the Brotherhood’s electoral projects the public might find objectionable. 

 

“If people want to absolve themselves of their religious duty, then they would not elect an Islamic party. Either they don’t agree with the religious obligations, or my implementation of the law is so repressive that they dislike the party and want to elect someone else,” says El-Erian.

 

The R-Word

The nation needs comprehensive economic, political and social reform, and that begins with free elections and a parliament that has real powers, says El-Erian. “The constitution needs to be amended, giving a freely elected parliament greater powers and transforming Egypt into a true parliamentary democracy.”  

And for any reform process to bear fruit, citizens must have the freedom to criticize. “The hunger for reform is there. The only thing missing is the will” at the higher levels of power, says El-Erian.

  

Public education reforms are also sorely needed, he says, a sentiment echoed by the NDP—Gamal Mubarak has made it a cause—and liberals alike. “Education in Egypt has become appalling—not because of the syllabi, as the Americans say. The problem is that there is no school or college that really teaches. Students rely on private lessons.” 

 

The crippling bureaucracy and the shallow state-run media also need to change, adds El-Erian. “The state-run media should not be beholden to the narrow vision of the ruling power, but should express all viewpoints.” 

 

The Brotherhood has often been accused of not developing a clear alternative to the present government. As America continued to beat the drum for democratic reform in the region following its romp in Iraq, the Muslim Brothers held a press conference in March at the Journalists’ Syndicate to outline a wide-ranging reform program that covers political, judicial, economic and educational reform. The reform plan is consistent with widespread criticisms of politics as usual, but remains short on specifics: It calls for a parliamentary democracy, free elections, the release of political detainees, an end to torture in police stations and state security investigations, respect for judicial rulings and an independent prosecution service that is not beholden to the ministry of justice, and independence for Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning.

 

What it doesn’t include is a roadmap of what the Brotherhood would do in office—let alone how it might get there one day. But El-Erian has ideas.

 

“Hassan Al-Banna said 60 years ago that the situation in Egypt can lead to a revolution, and it will not be the making of the Brotherhood, nor will it be beneficial to the nation,” says El-Erian. “The revolution happened, and it was not to the benefit of the people. The same situation is true today. The situation can lead to an explosion and this explosion will not benefit Egypt or the Egyptians. We say that there is a necessity for reform, and we ask the political leadership to take steps toward that.”